From Grim to Grand
In the late 1970s I drank a lot of really gruesome beer. I remember reading an article in that era from a wine critic, who was complaining about how he had to drink a lot of bad and boring wine. That guy should have counted his blessings: the poor beer critic of that era had to drink gallons of truly blah beers, each one amazingly similar to the last. I wrote in my journal “I wouldn’t mind all beers tasting alike if they actually had any taste at all.”
During that era (1972), on a trip to San Francisco, I discovered Anchor Steam Beer and Dark Steam Beer at the Old Spaghetti Factory. I met Fritz Maytag, America’s first true craft brewer, on my first visit to the brewery located under the Freeway at Eighth street. It was love at first sight, and I took a large number of photos there to produce a small slide show on homebrewing comparing it to brewing at the country’s smallest brewery (500bbl annually). Later, Maytag went on to develop two of America’s finest ever beers. These were the unforgettable Liberty Ale, and our nation’s first barleywine, Old Foghorn. Maytag revived the wonderful Christmas beer tradition with his Our Special Ale series of annual beers.
In 1976, Jack McAuliffe left the US Navy to open America’s first “micro” brewery (72 bbl annually). The tiny New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, CA, made wonderful New Albion Ale, Stout and Porter; refreshing alternatives to what American beer was becoming. By 1978, Charlie Papazian had started the American Homebrewer’s Association (AHA) in Boulder, CO, which in turn encouraged many homebrewers to start “micro” brewing.
In 1981, I traveled to Boulder to speak at, and judge homebrew for, the AHA. I met Michael Jackson, whose new book, The World Guide to Beer (1976), was making the rounds of beer lovers across the English-speaking world. I also tasted Papazian’s homebrew, some of which was canned by the Budweiser company at a special meeting later (1984). There, too, I had my first taste of new micro-brewed Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Stout and Porter (from Chico, CA), along with Boulder Extra Pale, Porter and Stout. I had the good fortune to meet homebrewers and beer lovers from across the country.
The next year, also in Boulder, I surfed the first Great American Beer Festival (AAB March 2006, 28:1). Boulder Brewing’s remarkable 1982 GABF Festival Ale (Longmont, CO) was clearly the class of that year, but Davis (CA) brewed River City Dark and Gold were very well received.
I did find it very disturbing that the taste of almost all of the mainline American brewers’ beers were becoming even more like each other. Indeed, industry analysts were telling us, with great authority, that by 1990 there’d be only ten brewing companies remaining in business. That seemed to little hope for the U.S. brewing industry.